Temporary Issues: "Stop and Frisk", Climate Change, Inequality
The front page of the serious newspapers and the networks (as opposed to the tabloid press, which is full of girlie pictures and murder and auto accidents and the local news stations which have the disadvantage of no girlie pictures) are preoccupied, for the moment, with Governor Christie and with the National Security Agency. Both of these stories are really of little importance. Governor Christie never had more than an outside chance at becoming the Republican nominee, and the security programs, as President Obamaís speech the other day made clear, will pretty much continue as they are. Only ideologues would care whether their metadata is captured and the President didnít even promise that the phone calls that might be accessed through court order will no longer be stored by the government, not that there is any good reason to move them elsewhere. You trust that much to Ma Bell and her successors?
The real news concerns the state of play of the national social structure at the moment. It comes up, if it does at all, on the inside pages. Here are three issues that receive only passing coverage but have some moment for the moment however much they are also only of passing interest in that they have only the most glancing of touches with social reality. Issues that are of real moment, of course, having to do with the fate of the nation, are right there in front of everyone. Obama is fighting for the poor and the Republicans are fighting for the rich; Obama wants everybody to vote and Republicans donít want Democrats to be able to vote. Shouting the magic word ďBenghaziĒ doesnít change that.
The first issue with only a tangential relation to real issues was trumpeted by Bill De Blasio during his campaign for Mayor of New York City. He is the great hero of the populist left, a foretaste of Elizabeth Warren for President, a sign of the Progressive resurgence--until, that is, you see what has already happened to his major campaign issue, now that we are two weeks or so into his term. Stopping Bloomberg's stop and frisk program was the issue which hurt Christine Quinn, the presumptive Democratic nominee for Mayor, the most. She equivocated on it, even if what won the nomination for De Blasio was the TV ad featuring his sonís Afro. De Blasio was elected as the feel good candidate, which is the reason why Bill Clinton and Barack Obama got elected, nobody outside his own family feeling good about Mitt Romney.
So a few days ago, Bill Bratton, the new police commissioner, announced that the stop and frisk problem had been solved. Stop and frisk encounters had gone down from around 600,000 three years ago to 500,000 the year before last to 150,000 last year, the one that ended less than a month ago which, you will note, was within the Bloomberg Administration. So Bratton basically has nothing to do on that front. Wouldnít you think that something had to be done once the new administration took office about the issue they most promoted when campaigning for office? I guess not. Nobody holds candidates accountable for what they promise during a campaign. Obama, remember, was going to transform American politics, but he didnít, the politics just as vitriolic if not more so than they had been when he campaigned for president the first time, and yet that was not an issue in his reelection, maybe because the few people who said Obama hadnít delivered on reconciliation of the two parties were just the people who had done everything they could to vilify the idea of reconciliation.
The more important point is that there is no legal way to get redress for broken promises. You canít sue politicians for having lied about their intentions or their policies. John F. Kennedy campaigned on a missile gap, American supposedly having an inferior number of nuclear missiles to the Soviet Union. MacNamara on assuming office as Secretary of Defense went over to the Pentagon and found out there was no missile gap. No apologies were required. An election is a fait accompli. The new guy is in charge whatever the circumstances of his assumption of office, and long may it be that way, a President not subject to lawsuits about broken promises. You are flying on spec whenever you vote in an election. It is your ability to size up character that counts. So Bill De Blasio will do what he wants to do, never mind what he said in the campaign. It is two months over now and ancient history.
Here is another way in which people in power play fast and loose with language when they are supposed to being serious about a matter of public policy, and so just deliver hot air that will wander off into the stratosphere rather than describe with knife like precision what is going on in social life. A high level appointment at the EPA was testifying to a Senate Committee a few days ago about climate change. Sen. Jeff Sessions prepared to launch what he thought would be a devastating question, and so it proved to be. He said he had a straightforward question, which is always a way to tell that it is a loaded one. He asked whether global temperatures over the past ten years had increased as much as climate scientists said they would. The administrator said she could not answer the question because there were so many qualifying statements that had been left out of the question. Sessions repeated the question and this time she said she could not say because she was not a climate scientist herself and relied on what the climate scientists told her. Sessions then said that the answer was that in fact there had been no increase in global temperatures over the past ten years, to which the executive rolled her eyes, as if she could not believe that he was saying something so preposterous.
What he had said, however, was just what climate scientists now say, but dismiss as unimportant. Temperatures may not have gone up over the past ten or fifteen years, but that is not their focus anymore. They focus on extreme weather, though they are no more willing to explain what they mean by that than they will disclose their formulas for global warming, which allow them to dismiss the lack of increase in global temperatures as a fluke fact, the time frame being so short in the long term march of temperatures upward. The trouble with that present hedging of bets, of course, is that they sold climate change on the claim that global temperatures were going up exponentially just at the time when they were going flat.
The more interesting fact is that the administrator did not know the history of the claims or even make an excuse for the fact Sessions was accessing. She just tried to avoid the question. It isnít that she hadnít properly prepared; it is that she doesnít know very much and doesnít claim to know very much about climate, though you would think that someone that high up in the agency would know something about it and not have to say they relied on the scientists for their information. There are political hacks and Know Nothings in Democratic as well as Republican administrations.
This avoidance of the simple facts, whatever you want to make of them, reminded me of the women who supported the Equal Rights Amendment back in the Eighties but who, when appearing at Congressional hearings, refused to say whether the passage of the Amendment meant that women would be subject to being drafted into the military, instead saying that the question would be decided by the courts and that, anyway, they would prefer it if no one, male or female, had to be drafted. Seeming ignorant was the best that could be done when the alternative was to say something unpopular. The leadership of the civil rights movement, by contrast, were notable for saying what they thought, presenting their principles rather than their evasions. Climate change, I think, is headed for the same dustbin in which the ERA has found its place, but I have been saying that for years. Why do people not face facts? Was Dianne Feinstein, who is an intelligent woman and sitting on the Senate panel, not embarrassed by this performance?
My third example of moments in the passing parade that show the state of play of talk about social structure without describing what is going on in social structure is this. Some activist or other made the fatuous remark last week that ďthe opposite of poverty is justiceĒ. Now here I had thought the opposite of poverty was an income sufficient to provide one with adequate food, clothing and shelter. The assertion made was obviously an attempt to say something profound, but what that is is by no means clear. Is it that poverty will end only when there is justice for all? That will be a long time coming, even if we could come up with a definition of justice. Is it that getting people out of poverty is just? No, it canít be that, because that is not what the adage says. Most likely, it means that the application of justice to economic life means a redistribution of of some of the wealth from those who donít need it to those who do. Ending poverty is a quest for justice in the same way that ending discrimination is a quest for justice: it is the right balance of things.
This sentiment is so arch and meaningless because it is so unspecific that it would be worth dismissing the adage as one of those things from popular culture not worth remembering were it not for the fact that so many serious people these days also conflate the problem of the inequality of income distribution in the United States with the problem of poverty in the United States. If money is taken away from those rich people, it will reduce inequality. That is obviously true as far as the income distribution ladder is concerned. It is not a sure thing that taking from the rich will increase the incomes of the poor and the middle class unless a direct transfer of wealth takes place even if it is true that those without might feel better to know that the rich are suffering a little more, though obviously a little redistribution will not hurt the rich very much and, anyway, resentment is not a good motive for social policy.
Rather, the way to make poor and middle class people less poor is by providing them with jobs, costless services, better transportation and infrastructure and all the other things that government can provide by taking only a little bit more revenue from the top end of the income curve. Push those programs, not matters of justice or fairness. Get practical and less ideological. But it is hard to wage wars on poverty without inveigling against the potentates of wealth. Our politics prefers the loose lips that sink good programs either at their time of conception or execution. I donít know how to get around loose talk in politics where one is permitted to say whatever one wants to, true or not, skewed or not, for to try to control that leads to even worse outcomes. This is the bane of democracy but also its balm: that every once in a while a finer line of sentiment and policy rises to the top.